Why the Public Is So Fascinated With Publicists

When Savannah Engel was working an event during her early days as a fashion publicist, she posed for a photo. After BFA, the event photographer, posted the image in an online album, “I got in so much trouble,” she recalled.

“That’s how much we used to stay behind the scenes,” she said. “You’ve got to be seen, not heard,” with publicists, clad in all black, seen as akin to “the hired help.”

Today Engel runs her own public relations firm, Savi, and she is tagged in over 350 photos on BFA’s website. She counts the exposure as a boost, not a drawback, to her business.

Fashion PR leaders are embracing a more public profile, whether that means building a following on social media that sometimes rivals their clients, or earning their own media placements. They’re responding to a shift in how audiences interact with brands and celebrities; rather than passively consuming content, there’s growing interest in what goes into creating a runway show, a fashion week party or an influencer trip.

Naturally, that interest extends to the people who are making these moments happen.

Cait Bailey of Align Public Relations, who represents talents like TikTok it girl Alix Earle and podcasting phenom Alexandra Cooper, and Nate Hinton, who counts brands like Sergio Hudson and Bally as clients, have been profiled in The New York Times. Gia Kuan, whose clients include New York fashion labels Kim Shui, Telfar and Luar, was the subject of a nearly 4,000 word article in Vanity Fair last September, and landed on the cover of Paper magazine’s comeback issue in January. Ay-Niyah Gold, who works with brands including hair care label Bread and skincare company Topicals, has been spotlighted by Teen Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and was recruited by Nike to star in Instagram videos for the brand.

The concept of a star publicist isn’t a new phenomenon: The profession has long been surrounded by a certain aura of glamour, particularly in fashion. New York magazine’s 1998 “Power Girls” cover, which crowned the “Seven Sisters” of New York public relations, helped put the field on the map. So did televised accounts of the profession, from Kelly Cutrone, founder of the agency People’s Revolution, who appeared on MTV’s “The Hills” before getting her own spinoff, “Kell on Earth,” to the fictional Samantha Jones on “Sex and the City.”

What makes this current wave of publicist attention distinct from those that came before it is that it’s fuelled by an interest in not only who these people are, but the nitty-gritty of the work that they do. Today’s publicists are breaking down what the job entails on TikTok, offering a behind-the-scenes look at events and the celebrity machine, including less sexy details such as runway show seating charts and image editing.

Publicists “are always on in a sense,” said Sandrine Charles, the founder of Sandrine Charles Consulting and the Black Fashion Council, who has been featured in publications like Elle and Coveteur.

“People have … an actual ability to see what publicists are working on and what their lives look like,” she said.

For the publicists themselves, there is still some trepidation about making themselves the story. But in an age of personal brands and online influence, it’s become something of a prerequisite — especially for boutique firms and PR entrepreneurs.

“The industry has changed, so we have to also change,” said Engel.

Pulling Back the Curtain

For publicists, building a following isn’t just about giving the public what they want. It’s also becoming an important driver of business, particularly for boutique agencies that are competing with large firms that are only getting bigger.

Having a public profile allows publicists to “tell a potential client who they’re connected to or what their taste levels are,” said Hinton. “[Those who] do that on purpose in publicity, it is because they feel like they need to be competitive with the other companies out there.”

Magazine profiles and television shows are one way to do that. But of course, good publicists know how to dispense with the intermediaries and speak directly to the people.

Engel answers questions about how to break into PR (typical advice includes learning how to operate Launchmetrics’ platform Fashion GPS) and her day-to-day life (in one video, she explains what she and her team do in the immediate aftermath of a fashion show, from the order they prioritise getting photos online to how they label the image files). Hinton published a six-part series on Instagram Reels in January, where he and his employees discussed what goes into staging a fashion show, including how many fittings a member of his team oversaw for a single season (58) and the delegation of day-of duties, like assigning last-minute seat numbers.

Such content also demonstrates an ability to tell a brand’s story, often a key selling point when wooing potential clients. While always a part of the business, this sort of immersive storytelling has become more important as a PR firm’s purview has extended beyond securing press placements and staging runway shows to include services that didn’t exist not so long ago, such as influencer relations and affiliate marketing.

“Brands want to connect with the people that they’re working with,” said Kuan. “It’s like yes, you can do the job, but you also get and understand the nuances of the brand.”

A Different Kind of Publicist

Many publicists are still uncomfortable in the spotlight. Most of the PR practitioners BoF spoke to for this story said they don’t seek out their own press, instead simply responding to inbound requests.

There is a line to thread — at the end of the day, a publicist can get all the press in the world, but the client has to come first.

“We have to get coverage for clients, so you absolutely don’t want to make it entirely about yourself,” said Charles. When she’s interviewed, she makes sure there is “always a circle back to the business and how I want it to grow and in what categories.”

But it’s also about helping to lessen the barriers to entry for an industry that’s “always [had] this mystique around it,” said Kuan, but hasn’t always been clear to those on the outside what the job actually involves.

Gold said she decided to accept the attention that was coming her way because she wants to show that it was possible to succeed in an industry where you didn’t fit the mould.

“Being a young Black publicist, it really would have been a disservice to my community and to younger people who want to get into PR to not share my story and what this actually looks like,” said Gold.


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